Sammy Wilson: PM must clarify if transition extension is substitute for Brexit backstop

Theresa May must clarify if the proposed extension to the Brexit transition period serves as an alternative to the EU’s demand for a backstop, Sammy Wilson has said.

The DUP MP was speaking after Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said the Northern Ireland backstop plan must be dropped if the prime minister wants to extend the UK’s 21-month transition period, which is expected to end in December 2020.

DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson

DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, Mr Raab said that if a longer transition period was to be considered, it would have to be instead of the backstop.

His remarks are likely to infuriate Brussels and the Irish Republic, who have both insisted that a backstop – essentially an insurance policy designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit – must be part of any withdrawal agreement.

The thorny issue has been a major stumbling bloc in the Brexit talks, with negotiators at loggerheads over how best to avoid checks at the border after the UK leaves the EU.

Mrs May told leaders of the remaining EU member states in Brussels that she was willing to consider extending the transition period by a year.

The idea has angered Brexiteer MPs, including Mrs May’s partners in government the DUP, with the party’s Brexit spokesperson Mr Wilson last week dismissing the proposal as “the maddest idea I’ve ever heard”.

He added: “If anything this will encourage the EU in their intransigence. If they knew the negotiations were being pushed right up against the next election, why would they be conciliatory in these negotiations?”

But the East Antrim MP yesterday welcomed Mr Raab’s intervention, hailing it as a “hardening” of the government’s position.

Staunch Brexiteer Mr Raab said that while the UK is “committed” to agreeing a backstop for NI in the event of a no-deal Brexit, he warned that the government “will not countenance” any customs or regulatory border down the Irish Sea.

The DUP has also repeatedly emphasised that such a move is a red line for the party, and has threatened to withdraw its support for the prime minister if she caves in to the EU’s demands.

In a bid to break the deadlock over the backstop issue, Downing Street has suggested that the UK as a whole could remain in a country-wide customs arrangement with the EU for a short time.

But Mr Raab said there could be no “indefinite limbo” inside the EU’s customs union.

He added: “The prime minister has rightly refused to rule out considering different approaches – including extending the implementation period for a limited period of a few months, as an alternative to the backstop.

“But we won’t sacrifice Northern Ireland, and we must have finality to any backstop – whether through a time-limit or a mechanism that enables the UK to leave, in case the EU doesn’t live up to its promise to get the future relationship in place swiftly.”

While Mr Wilson felt the EU was unlikely to accept Mr Raab’s position, he added: “This is exactly what the DUP has been calling for; the removal of the backstop, which the prime minister should never have agreed to in the first place.

“Mr Raab has stated that a proposed extension would be for a ‘period of a few months’, rather than a year which the PM had suggested.

“It seems to me that by saying the transition would only be extended by a few months, it could be a sign that the government is reverting to its original position, in which it had initially offered a transition period of two years.

“Perhaps this is a negotiation ploy designed to give the EU some cover so that they can say they have got something out of the UK in these negotiations if their demand for a backstop is removed.

“The question I would be putting to the PM is what exactly is her position; is it a couple of months extension with no backstop, or is it a full year extension that includes the backstop?”

It is not clear if Mr Raab’s comments signal a clear split between Mrs May and her Brexit secretary on the issue.

The News Letter yesterday asked Downing Street to clarify if the option of extending the transition period is dependant upon the EU abandoning the backstop. We received no response at the time of going to press.